The whole world seems to be caught in this trap. When confronted with a modern-day problem, they open an ancient book for the answers. Whether you venerate a cross, a star, an idol or a cube of stone, whether you turn to the east or the west for turning towards him who is said to be everywhere, you cannot escape the irrationality of faith. There is only one outcome of this irrationality. It has divided mankind into them and us. Each one of us has his holy icons, which are considered superior to those of others. Each one of us swears by some ancient text that is held to be immutable, far beyond the stretched arm of the inquisitive, rational man. Each one of us has designated a piece of geography, a structure, a tree, which is holier than the rest of the creation of that God sitting somewhere, though no one knows where. That God seems to be enjoying the conflicts; at least the preceptors would like the rest of us to believe that.
So you open the ancient book and it tells you that the crusades are good, jihad is good, dharma-yuddha is good. It is good because it strengthens us and it weakens them. They are children of a lesser God, all these wars in the name of religion are to be fought to weaken the lesser Gods of others.
Yes, the lesser Gods must be weakened and then destroyed. Each faith claims not that it is a true faith, but that it is the only true faith. Each claims that those who do not flock to that faith would fry in hell. Each calls the adherents of the other faiths infidels, kafirs, mlechchhas. The words do not merely signify unbelievers. They signify hatred. They call for a resolve to annihilate those of a different belief, by winning them over, if possible. By sword, if that is not possible. But they must be annihilated. The superior Gods have no mercy for the lesser Gods and their children.
The twentieth century, in its middle years, saw the emergence of an ethos where these words, infidels, kafirs, mlechchhas and others of that kind, were dropped out of polite speech. There were religious bigots who could mouth these but a class emerged which considered it below their dignity to stoop to the use of these words. Dictionaries mentioned these as offensive, as pejorative. All religious and racial slurs seemed to be sliding into oblivion, at least from the public pronouncements of public figures. What they said in private was never expected to be polite in any case.
So, you could expect renegades like Osama bin Laden to use these words in their harangues. You could not expect the Head of a State to use these in his public utterances. It all changed two months ago. General Musharraf came on the TV, ostensibly to tell his neighbour to lay-off. Everyone noticed that, commented on that. But all those who commented on that speech, missed one important word of the sermon of the General, who that day donned the garb of a pious, holy man quoting ancient texts for finding a solution to his current problems. A dozen times, he used the word kafir. He did not lay stress on it, he did not emphasise it. He was not apologetic that the context demanded its use, he did not look for an alternative. Kafirs are Kafirs and if some find it offensive to hear it, it is their problem. The General became pedestrian for a day, he descended on the street in the hope that those who are shouting in the streets against him will join him if he made this concession.
Imagine all the leaders of the world’s nations addressing their citizens and quoting some ancient text to call all those who subscribe to a different faith by these offensive words, infidels, kafirs, mlechchhas. It is not possible for unbelief to be a one-way street. Either two persons are equally unbelievers for each other or neither is. If one is going to fry in other’s hell for not subscribing to his faith, the same fate is assured for the other. It lies only in a bigot’s mouth to say that only he maintains a hell with a constant supply of boiling oil and that of the other either did not exist or it has closed shop. As long as there are these demagogues, no hell can possibly go out of business.
That is the whole problem about religion. It takes you away from God, which could not be bound in holy symbols, venerated structures, sacred rivers and purifying wells. It could not be even bound with time. Did the primordial amoeba have a God? If not, who created him, who gave him the will to multiply and then to mutate. If these were just forces of nature, then, let that be God. But that would put the priests and preceptors out of business. It is for them that we believe in forms and places, in rituals and in unbelievers. They are the intermediaries between our heart and us. They tell us that it is God who taught us to fight each other, that every God and his messenger brought only one message, destroy those who do not subscribe to his book, his words. That there is merit in such destruction, that the world will be peaceful only when there is no plurality of faith left in it. That peaceful co-existence of faiths is cowardice. That the heaven, apparently providing for much higher comforts than the scary hell is reserved for those who partake, with full zeal, in this destruction. As if to make it more tempting, all faiths stock their heavens with damsels, hooris, apsaras. Since, these may not be very tempting for the female part of the population, that half of humanity is supposed to stay out of decision-making in such serious matters.
Dear reader, you must be wondering if I am talking of an imaginary world. Yes, I wish it were so. I wish grown-ups in this world carried at least as much sense in their heads as children. I wish the leaders led us to a path that led to heaven here and now without waiting for the hereafter. Even if that heaven did not have hooris and apsaras.
But wishing is idle, the truth is before us. Every day, the world’s grown-ups slide lower in their enlightenment. The apertures become smaller, the lenses are turned in a fixed direction. God made each of us in a different mould. We seem to be bent upon challenging Him on that score. Since we cannot reduce the diversity, we tend to shut out the plurality. Only the children, happy in their ignorance of the ancient words, can roam around free, dreaming of a borderless humanity. Learned grown-ups and leaders have to move with a sense of purpose, in a fixed direction. The direction shown by some ancient men in some ancient books.
Is there an alternative that can give us some hope. Let me stand a cliché on its head. Let the scriptures be quoted only by the devils, the satans, the rakhshasas. The angels can do without them. People like Osama bin Laden have made their decision. General, choose your side!